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Review: Dull 'Murder' by the numbers

New Bullock movie like many others

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- Why are Sandra Bullock's movies so dependably generic? Although "Murder by Numbers" isn't a jumble, you can barely remember you saw it 10 minutes after it's over.

Inspired by the legendary murder case of Leopold and Loeb, the movie follows the snooty escapades of two high school kids who kill a stranger, simply to see if they can mislead the cops into thinking someone else did it.

Bullock plays Cassie Mayweather, an iron-pants police investigator who's rather disliked by her male colleagues. Cassie, you see, can't be pushed around, and she's famous for manipulating her partners with a barrage of obsessive police work and come-hither sexuality.

We don't witness the actual killing until very near the end of the film, at which point it's lingered over like a hearty merlot. The movie does start at the crime scene, a riverbank where Bullock's character makes her entrance with her new partner, Sam Kennedy (Ben Chaplin). A woman has been found strangled, stabbed, and wrapped in plastic ... but you knew that already if you've ever seen one of these movies.

Cassie shows Sam the ropes by gingerly stepping around the place and gathering miniscule clues. Director Barbet Schroeder -- who, as much as anyone involved, is responsible for the picture's guiding sense of been-there-done-that -- delivers one inventive shot: The camera slowly zooms in on the corpse until we see a full-screen close-up of a telltale piece of thread.

Odd couples

That thread was purposefully put there by Richard (Ryan Gosling) and Justin (Michael Pitt), high school buddies who have an ill-defined homoerotic attachment to one another. They also know a hell of a lot about forensic science.

Justin is a moody genius with greasy hair who can barely make eye contact with his classmates; his essay about the nature of crime, murder and social freedom plants the seed that leads to the killing. Richard, unlike his buddy, is a filthy-rich charmer who masks his sociopathic tendencies by flirting with, and usually seducing, anyone who gets near him. This will eventually include Justin's girlfriend (Agnes Bruckner). Just to make sure Justin knows about it, Richard secretly videotapes the lovemaking session.




Apparently, this is meant to imply that he has something in common with Cassie, although not much is made of it in the long run. In an odd little scene that nonetheless contains some very convincing kissing, Cassie has sex with Sam, then throws him out of bed. Sam seems bewildered by it all, but that's usual his M.O.

Chaplin's character sports no defining traits, and he disappears for a long stretch of time in the third act. It's hard to completely buy Cassie and Sam's extracurricular activities, but they have nothing on the deep, dark secret in Cassie's past.

Too long, too much

If there's anything to ruin by revealing too much, it would be the mystery of why Cassie is so preoccupied with her job. Schroeder and screenwriter Tony Gayton lay on vague signifiers and awkward snippets of dialogue that suggest this woman is Troubled. Unfortunately, Bullock doesn't project "troubled" very well. Cassie's overwhelming torment should be shot out of a cannon, not dispensed in measured blobs like soft-serve ice cream.

Things get Hitchcockian in the third act, much to the film's detriment. Railings start breaking and characters dangle over rocky cliffs but by then you're halfway rooting for them to fall. At 118 minutes, the running time allows for too much dawdling and not enough legitimate tension. Fifteen minutes of footage could have easily been discarded, to positive effect.

Bullock, whose endearingly goofy personality sustains a solid fan base, seems to recognize her good fortune, and she appreciates it. But, gosh, she's been in some feeble movies, and she often has a hand in producing them. "Hope Floats," "Gun Shy," "Miss Congeniality" and "Murder by Numbers" suggest, if anything, that she's a very poor judge of scripts.

Out of all those pictures, the only memorable moment is Bullock falling down while wearing high heels in "Miss Congeniality." To paraphrase Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is to a movie star?"

"Murder by Numbers" is a production of Warner Bros., a sister AOL Time Warner company to CNN. There's bad language, a bit of sex, and a lot of grotesque strangling and stabbing. Great moments in modern dialogue: At one point, Chaplin is made to say, "Remember the puke at the body dump?"




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